Sunday, 16 September 2007

Quakers and China

I have just come back from a holiday to China and seen at first hand the sheer pace of change since my last visit in 1991. Then markets were only recently liberalised, no private ownership of property, no private cars, foreigners mainly in tour parties (we have family in China so were not restricted then) but now a housing boom, traffic jams worthy of New York and London, modern 21st century cities and foreigners two a penny.

The pace of change shows no sign of slowing with many peoples standard of living raising fast enough for them to accept the increased disparities in wealth and so keep impulses for democratic reform under the surface. If no political freedoms certainly more cultural freedoms then in the past given the range of music, DVD’s and magazines available on the street.

Censorship is still an issue as I was unable to get on any Blog sites while there.But this is not a political piece, I am interested that this western economic transformation is taking place within a culture whose roots go back to several 1000 years and has a continuity that the West does not. To be similar, the Greco-Roman culture would have continued and the Roman Empire would have created a ethnic, language-political unity that would have constantly reasserted itself over the century.

For me the one recurring thought was this was a nation of over 1 Billion that consistently has no interest in invoking a unified and personified supernatural power. Hence, questions about the nature and existence of God which fuel much of the debate and discussions amongst Quakers are largely irrelevant.

These differences go deeper, for example Platonism stresses the rule of law, whilst Confucianism preached a society ruled by ethics. Quakers in arguing for that of the divine spark in all people is more in tune with ethical living then imposed authority. We are pulled back in the western sphere when looking at Enlightenment thinking calls for liberty and democracy, as Chinese Legalism demanded unquestioned loyalty to imperial authority. Here our roots in radical Protestants make us question any authority that conflicts with our vision of the righteous life.

I could continue to explore the links between Quaker practice and a Chinese philosophy primarily focuses more internally, while Western philosophy focus is more external. For me the challenge is how to unite the two so that I am concerned with changing the world to make it fairer and changing individuals so that it remains fair.

An example, could be to tackle the current western view of the environment by exploring our interrelationship with it as developed over the centuries by the Chinese whilst looking at at the political and cultural changes needed to make this a reality.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Quakers and Class

I am saddened to see I have not blogged for a month. My excuse is work pressures and not wanting to face trying to make sense of some of my Theological thoughts. It is also because I have become active in my Local Meeting which whilst positive means less time for reflection. What I will have to write about and reflect at some point in the future is the burning issue of the day at my meeting: how to reconcile working with excluded paedophiles by holding them in the meeting whilst at the same time starting a new children's meeting to widen involvement with the community.

Shaking my head at the complexity of that one I came across a much more familiar issue that of Class as set out below.
I'm writing because I took George Lakey's "Quakers and Social Class" workshop at Gathering this year (2007, River Falls, WI) and I'm looking to talk with other Quakers about social class, especially to Quakers who are either working class or grew up working class and who also feel like an odd duck among Quakers. I grew up working class and discovered in George's workshop that I've internalized much of modern Quaker's middle-class and owning-class tendencies. This, for me, has been much like discovering in my early twenties the depth to which the patriarchy had affected my life.

I'm starting a google group for working class Quakers or Quakers who grew up working class. Email me if you're interested in joining at njeanneburns at
Coming from a UK working class background its odd(welcome but still odd) to my ears when I hear Americans talk about class as all to often they mean status and see it in more fluid terms then the UK/European context. I see class as having three elements: firstly its about your degree of economic power/autonomy; secondly, its about your status within that economic band and thirdly its about the political values and practices that the first two generate. The whole is dynamic rather then static so will alter over time as personal and social circumstances change. The perspective also changes if you take "a what has been my experience line" or "a what has been the general experience of a groups line" For example, white collar jobs as described are classic class boundary jobs and so groups and individuals are often acutely aware of the benefits and pains of loss in status.

Its very common for individuals and groups who move into new social positions to adopt or internalise the values of the new group. Hence the importance of books and ideas as one reaction to being aware that what is normal is in fact a political/ cultural construction.If not clear already my academic background is in political sociology and I use ideas drawn from Gramsci who fused notions from both Marx and Weber.

At a personal level my mother was barely literate and worked as an unskilled factory worker and her brothers were labourers on building sites. My father was unknown. No one had the hope of escape so drink and dysfunctional family life was the norm up and down the generations. The fact that I loved books and reading was seen as abnormal and resulted in beatings etc.

Of my brothers and sisters, one became a bus driver and had a stable marriage and so moved up the class/status ranks. The rest did not and had kids by various partners, low level jobs when not on benefits (welfare), poor education, and so seen as “problem families”. I left school equally failed by the education system but managed to get a low level white collar job. So had already started to move away from my class base. Over the years I moved further and went from the bottom 3% to the top 3% of the educated population in the UK. In class terms I have jumped several layers which is highly unusual.

It has consequences, I don’t share the cultural norms of the class I move in( My job is social policy and creating social change so I engage with the political classes and social administrative elites) and I am an alien to the class I came from. Hence it has made me more aware and wary of “group think”.

I came to Quakers because of their radical and libertarian roots ( I bypassed the university radical socialists who despised the real working class) and over the years have appreciated and valued the theological rather then political basis for these practices. This is perhaps the heart of the political struggle for me. I value religion when it points me to appreciate the humanity of the individual but not when it ignores social oppression. I value a socialist perspective but not when it “demonises” the class-enemy.

I find Quakers often blind to their social and class biases, one of my sticking points has been around an over passive view of the peace testimony. I start from a Gandhi or Martin Luther King direct action line but question what to do if faced by a South African or Nazi German political regime. But often its more subtle and ignores social struggle. At one meeting, they were concerned enough about beggars to give out soup and sandwiches but not to tackle the housing and lack of structured support which was creating the situation. Or in another, the core of members came from upper middle class background and found it difficult to accept me and my families(oops now that would have been interesting but its a typo and should read family!) as equals as we were the Wardens. This was never up front but cultural norms kept clashing. A interesting pattern was that Wardens with independent means(ie similar to them) fitted in well but those that had to work as well had a sliding scale of fitting in. The lower the status job the more stormy the spilt with the meeting when it came.

Quaker Faith and Practice Advices and queries no 33 is holds the key for me when we look at Class.

Are you alert to practices here and throughout the world which discriminate against people on the basis of who or what they are or because of their beliefs? Bear witness to the humanity of all people, including those who break society's conventions or its laws. Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Are you working to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve?

And so do you?

Saturday, 7 July 2007

So which Quaker writers are Prophets without honour in their own land?

I came across Paul's blog on He was wondering after seeing Marcus Borg speak
Perhaps there is something about a prophet being without honour in his own land that makes an outsider look more attractive, but we do have thinkers and writers and dare I say theologians within our own family that have something to say to us.
I read many of the liberal protestant thinkers and those on the edges of faiths such as Marcus and many others of the Weststar institute, Karen Armstrong, John Shelby Spong, Don Cupitt, Bart D. Ehrman, Richard Holloway and many of the Sea of Faith writers such as Don Cupitt.

Like you Paul I am struck how many of these writers articulate and expand themes that Quakers are or have explored in our history. The common thread is that many of these writers and explores are trying to share a faith/practice lived by experience which plays to Quakers core practice.

However, this has cost them and they are by no means welcome in main stream Christian circles. Witness the fallout in the Anglican community of John's legacy of an inclusive church, or Karen's relationship with the Catholic church. Or the perhaps the most extreme was Lloyd Geering. In 1967 the Presbyterian Church charged him with heresy for his radical beliefs.

I do read various Quaker writers such as David Boulton, John Punshon and Ben Pink Dandelion and will be reading Consider The Blackbird Reflections On Spirituality And Language BY HARVEY GILLMAN and want to read Light To Live By:An Exploration In Quaker Spirituality BY REX AMBLER and Truth Of The Heart An Anthology Of George Fox EDITED BY REX AMBLER.

However, I am struck that the non Quaker writers are grappling with big issues of what God, the church, Jesus, morality etc means if we want to embrace the modern world

Yet this list of 2oth Century Quaker writings
explores inspirational individuals dealing with many issues of extreme injustice or devotional insights but would a non-Quaker be drawn to them?

So who are our writers and thinkers that challenge us and explain to the world the spiritual riches that could be a beacon for so many who reject a empty formula Christianity and a lets be nice to the neighbours secularism?

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Gambling , Quakers and me

In our Meeting today at the monthly business meeting, a concern arose for us to endorse. This was about gambling. The meeting was unable to endorse it with strong opinions on both sides of the issue emerging. It was left to seek more context from the proposer before it was discussed again.

Gambling is a live issue in the UK because of the Lottery. A national body in England, called Quaker Social Action has decided that they will seek Lottery funds much to the consternation of many Friends. British Quakers have to grapple with most funds that deal with creative, social and heritage measures are funded by the Lottery. To say no is to be marginalized. Hence stand by the principle of no gains from gambling and our buildings crumble, our social programs dwindle and imaginative outreach work flickers.

At the time when Friends where inching towards this decision, I was responsible in drawing down nearly three million pounds from the Lottery as start-up funds for over 100 childcare businesses in areas of disadvantage and so had a powerful impact on reducing child poverty. The childcare enables women to access or remand in work and the levels of women income is one of the key factors on being in or out of poverty

Anyway back to the business meeting…incidentally, this was the first Quaker Business Meeting that I have attended for some 3 years and the first at this Meeting. I did so because of the importance of attending business meeting was raised in Robin’s Blog… What Canst Thou Say? And it reminded me why it was important to do so. We can often escape in the silence of the Meeting but in business meeting, we have to deal that we have different views and work these through. It also means accepting responsibility for each other and for the life of the meeting. I am minded that early Quakers didn’t get rid of the priest, they got rid of the congregation!

But back to gambling, this is where I stand:

Firstly, I think on the scale of problems that we need to tackle such as global poverty, stewardship of the environment, Middle East justice, etc, mean that gambling and drinking are way down at the bottom for me. They feel like part of our Puritanical past, not our spirit lead future.

Secondly for me, like many issues a balance has to be struck between the harmless enjoyments of the many with the detrimental effects on the few. I think it a perfectly valid moral position to be a non-gambler in the same way of being teetotal, or vegan. But once in the sphere of social and political policy rather then as an individual moral stance it’s the language of regulation rather then bans or sin for me.

To explore this further, let’s try and define gambling. A useful starting point is

a wager or bet in which each player agrees to risk losing some material possession to other players in exchange for the chance to win the possessions of other players without compensation to the loser, the winner(s) and loser(s) being determined by the outcome of a game.
The first problem for me is that it’s both too broad and too narrow. It’s too broad because it conflates what I would call organised gambling that I would want regulated with social gambling which I would not.

Charity and church-sponsored bingo, raffles, etc.

Bazaar and fair booths where you pay to spin a wheel and try to win a prize, etc.

Amateur gambling including poker games for money, office pools, matching quarters for cokes or coffee, playing marbles for keeps. Also included are some athletic leagues where winners are not just awarded a trophy or plaque, but players put money into a "kitty" then play to try to win some of the money.
Casino gambling: slot machines, roulette wheels, dice and card games, numbers games, etc., played for stakes.



And it’s too narrow as this definition wants to exclude stock market speculation and the operation of the market in general from the “sin” of gambling. Do it as an individual, “bad”, do it as a corporation “good”. Yet what is the difference between putting in a 100 and making it 1000 by taking the risk that prices will rise before you sell, and putting a 100 on at 10-1 and risk the horse not coming first?

This blind spot to institutional gambling and making profits without working for it was not always so. For many centuries, making profits on money was seen as sinful. Around 1620, according to the theologian Ruston, 'usury passed from being an offence against public morality, which a Christian government was expected to suppress, to being a matter of private conscience, and a new generation of Christian moralists redefined usury as excessive interest'. One of the major problems facing many developing countries is crippling loan debt. Is this less important then being pure about gambling?

This mention of having to work for it is one of the roots of the opposition to gambling. The Protestant work ethic argues that gambling encourages feckless behaviour and expecting something for nothing. Yet behind this work ethic was a desire to prove that one was chosen by what you had in the world. And as a consequence the poor and needy were punished with the poor house and working class attempts to improve their lots with Trade Unions and access to Democracy was bitterly resisted.

Another line of argument is that that it distracts from Sabbath observation which and so with singing and dancing they were banned by Puritans in the 17th. This was part of the rejection of music, theatre, and enjoyment of nature that Quakers have gradually moved way from other the centuries. Do we put respect the Sabbath and its narrowness above these creative activities? Is a game of family cards with prizes so sinful?

A third line was that any game of chance "prostituted divine providence to unworthy ends. But why would Quakers have religious practices based on a Transcended, all powerful God?

A fourth line is that gambling is based on greed and covetousness. For example it is easy for a camel to pass through the eye of a needed then for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Or Ephesians 5:5-7; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 - Those who covet will not receive the kingdom of God, but God's wrath abides on them. Yet isn’t greed and covetousness the basis of capitalism? So for me I read these and other passages (such as the love of money is the root of evil) to argue for economic and social justice rather then individual condemnation. Likewise the argument that we are stewards of the world, which should be used for God’s glory this leads me to a concern with environmental justice rather then a condemnation of gambling.

In short, I would be happy to relegate institutional gambling and make it responsible for funding support for gambling addiction. I would support any campaign to make it less “sexy” but for me it not a priority as many of the Scriptural sources for anti-gambling is for me about justice and compassion and not sin. Do we have Quakers have a passion for Social Justice or do we act as Anglicans’ in the early to mid 20th century

‘Christianity and Social Order’, by William Temple:

“The claim of the Christian church to make its voice heard in matters of politics
and economics is very widely resented, even by those who are Christian in personal belief and devotional practice. It is commonly assumed that religion is one department of life, like art or science, and that it is playing the part of the busy-body when it lays down principles for the guidance of other departments, whether art and science or business and politics. …… few people read much history. In an age when it is tacitly assumed that the church is concerned with another world than this, and in this with nothing but individual conduct as bearing on prospects in that other world, hardly anyone ever reads the history of the church in its exercise of political influence. It is assumed the church exercises little influence and aught to exercise none; it is further assumed that this assumption is self evident andhas always been made by reasonable men. { I might add women}. As a matter of fact it is entirely modern and extremely questionable.”

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Reflections on Quaker experience, practice or views

This is the approach that emerged from my reflections.

Engage with thinkers and writers outside or on the margin of what the consensus is whilst building up a network of fellowship for mutual support and challenge. Keep the insights simple and use stories to communicate what learned and remain open even when attacked from the outside and promptings of self-doubt. Use dreams for clarity and for the understanding of any themes running through them and unconscious ideas.

I have been asking my dreams to stay around and they are. Two images keep emerging; firstly, I approach people to ask questions and either can't speak or speak the wrong language, and secondly, I keep coming to a house with endless rooms that open on to more rooms each feeling as right as the other yet different.

On the surface, they reflect that I feel paralysed by the enormity of the task of trying to say what I mean by the questions posed below.

* What's your experience, practice or views of God?

* What's your experience, practice or views of Jesus?

* What's your experience, practice or views of the Bible?

* What's your experience, practice or views of other faiths?

* What's your experience, practice or views of life after death?

* What's your experience, practice or views of human nature, sin and grace?

* What's your experience, practice or views of Church government?

* What's your experience, practice or views of pacifism?

* What's your experience, practice or views of the Sacraments?

* What's your experience, practice or views of Quaker unity?

After all, these are questions that greater minds then mine have grappled with in each of the main monotheistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as well as many Enlightenment and post Enlightenment thinkers in the West. My feelings are reflected in this story.

A judge in a village court had gone on vacation. Nasrudin was asked to be temporary judge for a day. Nasrudin sat on the Judge's chair with a serious face, gazing around the public and ordered the first case be brought-up for hearing.

"You are right," said Nasrudin after hearing one side.

"You are right," he said after hearing the other side.

"But both cannot be right," said a member of public sitting in the audience.

"You are right, too" said Nasrudin.

On a deeper lever the dreams are yet again pointing to my failings of trying to be "right" and have proof that this idea is sound and another is not. But this a dead end, I need to look less for right thinking and more for right doing. I need to concentrate on Mythos and not Logos.

So these are stories and quotes that capture a part of what I know and practice now but a new idea and a fresh experience later...who knows what I will believe and practice-isn't that exciting and at the heart of being a creative human being!

What's your experience, practice or views of God?

A scientist and logician had met Nasrudin and wrangled with him as they walked along a road. Nasrudin was hard-pressed. The scientist said: " I cannot accept anything as existing unless I carry out a test, or unless I see it with my own eyes." The logician said: " I cannot attempt anything unless I have worked it out in theory beforehand."

Suddenly Nasrudin knelt down and started to pour something into a lake beside the road.

"What are you doing?" they asked together.

“You know how yoghurt multiples when you put in milk? Well I am adding a little yoghurt to this water."

But you can't make yoghurt that way!"

“I know, I know...but-just supposing it takes!"

The pleasantries of the incredible Mullah Nasrudin by Idries Shah

What's your experience, practice or views of Jesus?

Once every hundred years Jesus of Nazareth meets Jesus of the Christian in a garden among the hills of Lebanon, and they talk long. And each time Jesus of Nazareth goes away saying to Jesus of the Christian, " My Friend, I fear we shall never, never agree."

Sand and Foam by Kahlil Gibran

What's your experience, practice or views of the Bible?

...there are many religions and many sacred books. We cannot just assume dogmatically that one is authentic and ignore the others. Holy books must be read critically, to appraise the religious and moral values they teach and the historical information they give, Besides the Christian Bible is clearly a human historical document, tied to certain past times and places...with ...writings ...not scriptural from the first. They began as occasional writings...eventually made Scriptural by decision of the Church.

The Sea of Faith by Don Cupitt

What's your experience, practice or views of other faiths?

A useful image was offered by Bede Griffiths, a Christian who spent most of his life in India. During a video interview made shortly before his death in 1993, Griffiths spread out his hand. The religions are like the separate fingers, he said, and are quite distinct from each other. But if you trace them to their source, the palm of the hand you see they all come together in their depths.

Spiritual Literacy by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussatt

What's your experience, practice or views of life after death?

One of the most poignant of our community customs is the Celebration of Memories celebration. The night before a sister is buried the community gathers at her coffin to remember together the moments of her life that taught us all something about life. The simple ritual turns death into life at the very moment we feel its loss most. It is a model, this finding life in loss, for dealing with death of all kinds.
Joan Chittister in a High Spiritual Season

What's your experience, practice or views of human nature, sin and grace?

We have, it seems never ceased to be apes; yet we aspire to be angels. How far have we really got along the evolutionary road? How far have we got to go, before we genuinely included the whole human community, and reached a viable frontier between humans and others? Perhaps the quest is doomed to be interminable as every scientific advance blurs convincing distinctions.

So you think you are Human by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

They came first for the Communists,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the sick, the so-called incurables,

and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't ill.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics,

and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me,

and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

What's your experience, practice or views of Church government?

There was once an Old Jewish man. All he ever did in his spare time was to go to the edge of the village and plant fig trees. People would ask him, “Why are you planting fig trees? You are going to die before you can eat any of the fruit they can produce.” But he said, "I have spent many happy hours sitting under fig trees and eating their fruit. Why shouldn’t I make sure that others will know the enjoyment that I have had?"

Traditional Jewish Parable

What's your experience, practice or views of pacifism?

Gandhi when a young barrister from London travelled in a train in Africa. He was dapper, all decked out in a suit, holding a first class ticket.

But the train inspector threw him out. He said FIRST CLASS, WHITES only. After he was roughed up and dumped on the platform he slowly got up. It was night time. Out of the shadows a man comes out. A white man.

” I am a lawyer" he says "I saw everything." "I want to sue that inspector and want to see to it that he is punished."

Dusting off his knees and elbows, straightening himself Gandhi says

“Revenge will do no good... An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

What's your experience, practice or views of the Sacraments?
... It is the inward change, the inward purification, the spirtual fact and not the outward symbol...

Quaker Faith and Practice 27.37
God decided to become visible to a King and a peasant and sent an Angel to inform then of this blessed event."O King", the Angel announced, " God has deigned to be revealed to you in whatever manner you wish. In what form do you want God to appear?"

Seated pompously on his throne and surrounded by awestruck subjects, the King proudly proclaimed: "As befits a King I want to see God in all his majesty and power"

God granted his wish and appeared as a bold of lighting that smote the King and his courters so not even a cinder remained.

"O peasant", the Angel announced, " God has deigned to be revealed to you in whatever manner you wish. In what form do you want God to appear?"

Scratching his head, and having thought for a long time, the peasant finally said " I am a poor man not worthy to see God face to face. But If its God will to be revealed to me, let it be in the earth that I plough, the water I drink and the food I eat. Let me see God in the faces of my family, neighbours and even in my own reflection.

God granted the peasant his wish , who lived a long and a happy life.

Traditional folk story
What's your experience, practice or views of Quaker unity?

A community of blind men once heard that an extraordinary beast called an elephant had been brought into the country. Since they did not know what it looked like and had never heard its name, they resolved to obtain a picture, and the knowledge they desired, by feeling the beast - the only possibility that was open to them!

They went in search of the elephant, and when they had found it, they felt its body. One touched its leg, the other a tusk, the third an ear, and in the belief that they now knew the elephant, they returned home.

But when they were questioned by the other blind men, their answers differed. The one who had felt the leg maintained that the elephant was nothing other than a pillar, extremely rough to the touch, and yet strangely soft. The one who had caught hold of the tusk denied this and described the elephant as, hard and smooth, with nothing soft or rough about it, more over the beast was by no means as stout as a pillar, but rather had the shape of a post ['amud]. The third, who had held the ear in his hands, spoke: "By my faith, it is both soft and rough." Thus he agreed with one of the others, but went on to say: Nevertheless, it is neither like a post nor a pillar, but like a broad, thick piece of leather."

Each was right in a certain sense, since each of them communicated that part of the elephant he had comprehended, but none was able describe the elephant as it really was; for all three of them were unable to comprehend the entire form of the elephant.

Muhammad al-Ghazzali (1058-1128 c.e.),

Sunday, 10 June 2007

A Quaker Doing Theology… first steps

How do I begin?

I don’t want to jump in the writings of the various strands of Quakerism or the wider Christian world. That’s for another and later time. I have now got Barclay’s Apology in modern English and have an order in the pipeline for The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918. I may even get the companion volume of early modern Theologians to get sense of the religious ideas that George Fox and early Friends were reacting to or against.

Now Friends and other Christians reading this may well want to know why bother as it’s a waste of time: God doesn’t exist or thinking about God isn’t experiencing God; Jesus is either the resurrected Son of God or man striving to be a good Jew; and the Bible is a quaint historical bundle of various types of writings or the Word. And of course within these are a whole range of positions.

Earlier I posted some key questions that I argue that we as Friends need to always engage with to refresh on our journey. So let’s start with the simple one!
What's your experience, practice or views of God?
As a first step I am going to use a Roger von Oech creativity strategy to help me think though how to approach this. This draws 5 creative cards at random from a pack as a creativity oracle to answer these questions. The point is to surprise yourself and get thinking in unexpected ways

1 Environment: What other people and issues have a bearing on this question?

Card-Ask a fool

This suggests to my mind that I need to start with those that question all the key assumptions of what God is. I am reminded of a book that I read some 30 years ago where a Church of England Bishop faced up to the criticism of Marx, Freud and Durkheim and explored the implications for the church. Three books that spring to mind and which I have access to are God the Trickster edited by Ben Pink Dandelion, Godless for God’s Sake edited by David Boulton and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

2 Mirror: What inner resources should I be tapping into

Card-Get Support

I think this is the motive for doing my thinking and reflection in public. I want to be challenged and supported to appreciate what my own inner strengths are. If I really listen to you, will you really listen to me? If I have to face what I need to let go of, what will you let go of? But I also need to build on and link with Friends where I can to ensure a honest fellowship through the Blogs and comments engaged.

3 The shadow? What aren’t I seeing?

Card-Think like a kid

I have to avoid being over rational and intellectual about this. I need to offer the insights I gain say as stories or jokes that can hit the imagination of all rather then theoretical insights. Reminds me of one of my favourite Theological jokes albeit about Jesus.

And Jesus said unto them, "And whom do you say that I am?"
They replied,
"You are the totaliter aliter, the vestigious trinitatum who speaks to us in the modality of Christo-monism.”
"You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the ground of all possibilities.”
"You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming roughness’ in the midst of our fraught condition of estrangement and brokenness in the contiguity and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships.”
“You are my Oppressed One, my soul's shalom, the One who was, who is, and who shall be, who has never left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed struggling for freedom, and whose blackness is both literal and symbolic.”
And Jesus replied, "Huh?"
4 Caution: what should I look out for or beware of?

Card: Use your shield

I am going to get negative reactions from what I post. I must try and get into a dialogue as this is useful for learning but I must also not get blocked or distracted from this exploration. But I must also avoid blocking if the ideas I explore threaten me and my sense of what is “right”

5 Power Card: What do I have to do to make the task happen?

Card: Listen to your dreams

What dreams have I had that could inspire me to press on with this project? The sad answer is I rarely remember my dreams. But this is perhaps the strongest hint of all. One of my favorite creativity websites tells me this about dream incubation.

1. Before falling asleep, go over the following several times: ‘Tonight I dream; when I awake I will remember my dreams’

2. On awakening in the morning, lie quietly, do not open your eyes, and let you mind dwell on your initial thoughts. These initial thoughts could remind you of your last dream prior to awakening and with practice allow you to remember more and more of the dreams details.

3. A notebook is essential alongside your bed, to record a diary of your dreams. You could try sketching your dreams or use a tape-recorder to record middle of the night dreams. The following morning these tapes could be translated into the dream diary.

4. Essential, keep the daily diary, try not to miss days out.

The result

So after 30 minutes of reflection using a creativity game I have been lead to engage with what’s your experience, practice or views of God, using this approach.

Engage with thinkers and writers outside or on the margin of what the consensus is whilst building up a network of fellowship for mutual support and challenge. Keep the insights simple and use stories to communicate what learned and remain open even when attacked from the outside and promptings of self-doubt. Use dreams for clarity and for the understanding of any themes running through them and unconscious ideas.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

What do I believe in as Quaker?

Just back from my local Meeting in Bristol which has managed to leave me puzzled. It wasn't the Ministry or embers of old friendships needing a quick rake but an innocent throwaway question to the Meeting. A member who had been at British Yearly Meeting, donated a copy of Godless for God's sake edited by David Boulton. It was clear when he said, we know what they believe but what do we believe, that it wasn't speaking to his condition! But he was serious in wanting to get some views from the Meeting in the form of a loose leaf folder for people to read as part of establishing fellowship.

I pressed for this being series of pages on a Meeting Blog but was happy to see that this could come after we have the loose sheets. In writing this, I had the vision of a series of standard questions on a single sheet to allow for a personal statement with a picture of the local Friend on the sheet.

Leaving aside trying to get the Meeting to agree and then doing it, my puzzle is what would be the questions? I seem to vaguely remember some years ago a sheet prepared by Friends House for this very purpose. And I have seen local Meetings booklets( or am I imagining this?) These are my top 10 questions but in no particular order.
  1. What's your experience, practice or views of God?
  2. What's your experience, practice or views of Jesus?
  3. What's your experience, practice or views of the Bible?
  4. What's your experience, practice or views of other faiths?
  5. What's your experience, practice or views of life after death?
  6. What's your experience, practice or views of human nature, sin and grace?
  7. What's your experience, practice or views of Church government?
  8. What's your experience, practice or views of pacifism?
  9. What's your experience, practice or views of Sacraments
  10. What's your experience, practice or views of Quaker unity?
The purpose is not to develop or work towards a creed, nor to expect a consistent Theology on these issues but to deepen understanding of where Friends in the Meeting current journeys are. Are these the right questions? Are they phrased in a clear way? What questions would you ask? What book or books* would you get me to read that explained your views the best. And how would you answer them?

* I have Barclay's Apology: In Modern English on order so I will have an "official"17th century baseline but Theology, Quakers and our understanding of the world has moved on in over 300 years.At some time I need to read this in light of such books as Honest to God edited by Colin Slee and Tomorrow's God by Lloyd Geering

Friday, 25 May 2007

How balanced is our spirtual thinking?

I just had a comment on my recent post from Zach who clearly is a resource and strength that Friends need to share their life's with while he shares his journey with us. Its his final point that got me thinking. I was just going to drop him a note thanking him but it grew! The Seed Lifting Up... Looked at in this way, Quakerism in the main does indeed have an imbalanced view of spirituality - emphasizing the ethical and social but IMHO often suffering from anti-aesthetic and anti-intellectual tendencies.

I agree with Zach but knowing why can help us offer support and challenge where this becomes a deadening influence. Quakers have their roots in a tradition that rebelled against medieval church art and looked for simplicity and plainness. This tended to elevate the importance of the word over visual art. Equally, it meant a rejection of church music and like wise popular music and dance as being distractions of the body. George Fox in his Journal for the year 1649 says, ‘I was moved to cry out against all sorts of music’ This did begin to change over time as the booklet Beyond Uneasy Tolerance: The Saga Of Quakers And The Arts In 100 Quotations shows. The link below shows how this became a "hot" 19th century issue and an expression of the modernization of British friends.

I would strongly support that Arts in all their forms as a powerful way of expressing life in its whole that God and theistic talk is often a metaphor or short hand expression. My wife is an actor and ex dancer and draws on both in her own journey as a devotee of the Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, lovingly called 'Amma', and known globally as India's "hugging saint mother ". I do story-telling performance and draw on this when moved to give Ministry.

Anti-intellectualism is more problematic. One of its roots in Quakerism is the influence of Pietism which preached the saving power of the gospel instead of dogmatic principles. This lead to a more personal faith and away from intellectualism. The positive effects of Pietism lead to Bible reading, prayer, outwardly speaking about one's faith, and a turn from worldly activities.

The roots of this, as argued in "Quaker Theology" was that Early Friends were often loudly sceptical about theology, which George Fox referred to scornfully as “windy notions.” Their critique had at least five major points:
  1. Intellectualizing about religion takes people away from experiencing God and the Spirit, and letting these change their lives, which is what they really need to do;
  2. The official theologies of various churches were the products of corrupt, faction-ridden, politically influenced church councils.
  3. Theological formulas were/are regularly used as instruments of oppression.
  4. Academic theology wraps its work in technical, in-group jargon, and thus hides God’s truth from ordinary people.
  5. Theological speculation is more likely to promote pride and lead to skepticism than to promote humility and faith.

Much of this is valid today, But as Pietism can weaken into a withdrawal from the world and narrowing of the mind as the Bible is increasingly defended as the inerrant word of God rather then a creation of humans seeking a meaning and understanding of the world. For a thoughtful reflection on the complexities of literalism and the Bible see:

Another reason is that many of us live in a pluralistic and open religious world and so need to prepare ourselves to take a fuller and more constructive part in the many opportunities for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue which are now available. Or put in a more negative way we have to show that Fundamentalism is not the only valid expression of any of the key monotheistic traditions.

To stop questioning what Quakerism means is to reject the growth that of self- examination and definition requires of any living faith community. After all, in Matthew 22:37, Jesus includes in the first Great Commandment the imperative to love the Lord “with all your mind” William Blake argues for what this means by celebrating the power of the imagination and how it must be used if we are to make difference.

Auguries of Innocence by William Blake

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…
Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet Delight.
Some ar Born to sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro' the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to Perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light.
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in the Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

What does many paths to the divine really mean?

Just in from work and catching up with the World Wide Quaker Community when The Friend(A British Quaker weekly newsletter) feed flashed that a new post had arrived. It was a comment from a Friend who was a member of Mensa describing why and the issues this throws up of being a Quaker. Many Friends found the elitism of the organisation a challenge.

A view that I share because I feel the organisation is based on a false premise. of what being intelligent is. I prefer to use the ideas first developed in 1983 by Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University. His theory of multiple intelligences suggests that traditional notions of intelligence, based on I.Q. testing, is far too limited. Instead, Dr. Gardner proposes eight different intelligences to account for a broader range of human potential in children and adults.These are

Groups like Mensa, and Education in general, see intelligence as word and number/reasoning smart. Hence, they tend to value these individual attributes or skills. I worked in Further Education and used these ideas linked to NLP methods. Part of this was helping the students assess their own learning style. Many of them were amazed to discover that they were not 'thick' but learned best by doing or by self-reflection.

Now what does this mean for Quakers? How do our practices meet the needs of these diverse ways of engaging with the world? Do we in practice value and attract a high percentage of individuals who have

Linguistic intelligence ("word smart" +
Intrapersonal intelligence ("self smart")
and so favour spoken ministry based on deep reflection and repel many who have

Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence ("body smart")+
Musical intelligence ("music smart")+
Naturalist intelligence ("nature smart")
who would prefer dancing in the woods under the full moon?

Is this a bad thing or what the many paths to the divine really mean? In Friends we may have 57 variety of opinion but from afar are we more similar in the path we tread then we think?

Sunday, 20 May 2007

If not prepared for can we live?

I decided that the deafening silence last week to my personal journey was down to poor presentation and confused titles (well my life may just be ordinary but not got to that level of humility yet!) So let’s hope this post's title makes more sense and has less technical problems. Also as will be shown I have not rejected all God or Theistic language.

This train of thought was started by Ministry in today's Meeting. The announcement of allowing stem cell research based on mixing animal and human cells was discussed in an early morning religious BBC radio programme. What caught the speaker's imagination was the fact that the cells could be linked so demonstrating the unity of life. (I have read that most living creatures share a common pool of genes but how they get switched on and off is what creates the complexity of apparent differences). Towards the end of the Meeting, more Ministry explored the hidden exploitation of animals in the process as well as the plain fact that if we tackled world poverty then this would increase the well-being of the many rather then the few.

The meeting closed and in the after words session, a whoosh of conversations opened up exploring the notions of when human life is said to begin or what the benefits of research would be for relatives that are in the living death of senile dementia.

I remained silent as my thoughts had gone off in two different directions. One was that the whole issues under discussion call into question traditional Theistic notions of God. In that the idea of man being in the image of God is a key Christian notion as well as having dominion over all that fly and crawl. Both link to the image of the Emperor God creator. If humans are not unique and part of a continuum of life as has been traditional in many Eastern religions then the light is in all creation and not just in humanity. What does this mean for our relationship to the planet and life? To be fair what I have just written applies to the notion of a Transcendent God but it is compatible with Panentheism (not pantheism which is God as nature but everything in God, and God in everything). As illustrated by this old Welsh poem.
I am the wind that breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave on the ocean,
I am the murmur of leaves rustling,
I am the rays of the sun,
I am the beam of the moon and stars,
I am the power of trees growing, I am the bud breaking into blossom,
I am the movement of the salmon swimming,
I am the courage of the wild boar fighting,
I am the speed of the stag running,
I am the strength of the ox pulling the plough,
I am the size of the mighty oak tree,
I am the thoughts of all the people
Who praise my beauty and grace.
My other train of thought, lead me to a concern that the research is driven by a medical profession and public demand that refuses to engage with ageing, dying and death. We urge bodies on to live as that are tired and weary of life. In part this had been set off by reading The year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion where she discusses the gradual change from where grief had a clear public timetable and ritual stretching over years to one now where grief is seen as an embarrassing private affair.

But it also been set into motion by a contradictory approach to the first set of thoughts. This are the ideas of Don Cupitt. In his writings, Cupitt sometimes describes himself an Christian non-realist This means that he follows certain spiritual practices and attempts to live by ethical standards traditionally associated with Christianity, without believing the actual existence of the underlying metaphysical entities. One of his arguments, explores the experiences of early Christian who believed in the second coming and end times. He and many other commentators argue that this what shaped and opened the cult to pagans and took a more equal view of women etc. He extends this today and asks how you would live your life if each day was your last. Dr. Bernie Siegel is a physician who has cared for and counselled innumerable patients echoes this notion as this quote shows.
In many cases people who've become aware of their mortality fine that they've gain the freedom to live. they are sized with an appreciation for the present: every day is my best day; this is my life; I am not going to have this moment again. They spend more time with the people they love and less time on people and pastimes that don't offer love or joy. this seems like such a simple thought-shouldn't we all spend our lives that way? But we tend not to make those kind of choices until someone says, " you have 12 months to live."
They can be reconciled as they both ask me to value life and to live positively but we can chose to express that as helping God's love of the world or seeking to live in a just way. Who cares as long as we
show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Part 2: Expressing our faith: Response to Marshal Massay and Peter Bishop

Outside is dark, grey and very wet even though its lunchtime. Friends who get to the core of things will want to know if I got to Meeting and if I had the cup of tea. Sadly no in regards to the tea but yes for attending Meeting. But I have been to the shops, got my ribosh tea bags (ordinary tea is full of caffeine so bad blah, blah) and so a hot, steaming pint mug by my side.

To explain why I have written a part two I need to share with you part of my personal journey and my experience with Friends. Last night, I was watching a programme about problem eaters. these case studies are about individuals who will only eat chips, or processed food but who still look healthy. The series explores the emotional basis for that behaviour and the struggles of the individual to change 20-30 years of learned behaviour over a 4 week period. The man whose life we observed has not eaten or prepared any fresh food or vegetables since he was 5. The root of this behaviour was him associating an image of a slop bucket of waste at school with him being bad inside as the reason why his father abandoned him.

One of the things that helped him finally helped him change his behaviour, was creating an effigy of his father and taking this to his old school. Then in the school hall, throwing handfuls of waste food from a slop bucket at his " father" saying each time what he felt and what he had been angry and upset about. It made for powerful viewing and it was liberating for him.

I have never had a eating disorder but I was abandoned by my father at birth and so never knew him. My mother had six other children mostly by different men and we are all bastards. Illiterate, she lived in complete fantasy world so she like my grandmother were never clear who my father was. The stories ranged from a USA soldier on the way to Korea to a local electrician who could not stand your mother's lies . My mother abandoned me but not the other children. Excusable behaviour perhaps because when I was born, people like my mother could be sectioned permanently under the Mental Health Acts as a moral degenerative.

I lived with my Grandmother who pretended to be my Mother. I discovered the deception when I was five and the anger was with me for a long time. She was grossly overweight, her legs had weeping sores and she was depressed as her husband had deserted her around the time I was born. She also carried a deep sorrow at the loss of various children that had died unbaptised and so in hell according to her view of Catholicism which she had abandoned soon after. I was physically abused and neglected while in the family, often having books ripped away from me as I escaped into them. Beaten and locked in rooms, turning up to school unwashed and cloths covered in dirt and worse.

We lived in a small village where the family had moved to during the war and we were of Irish origins. In the 40's and 50's the Irish were treated in the same ways as Black people would have been treated if moving into a white neighbourhood. No one bothered to deal with my neglect as what can you expect they are Irish. No one bothered if my performance at school was bad(it was discovered at 11 that I was so short-sighted I couldn't see the board, and so deaf that I needed various operations) as what can you expect they are Irish.

We left the village when I was 11, to a slum house with no bathroom or inside toilet and went to one of the worse schools in the town. It had a Grammar by selection school system so the failures went to Secondary Modern schools and mine was at the end of the line. Eventually for a year I moved to one of the poorest pubic housing estates in the town which is still one of the most deprived areas in the UK. Bullying in the community and in the family continued.

At 18, I abandoned them and started my life. I left with a passionate belief in the importance of social justice and a complete lack of trust in God and Christian language and practices. Where was He and them for me when I was crying in the dark covered in filth.

Throughout my 20's I was a confused and angry young man. Part of my change in direction was my suicide attempt. Up to that point, I was living a defensive lie that my family had kidnapped me and if I was ill then my real family would rescue me. I was ill and they didn't but the rush that I had to be responsible for myself got me kick started. By the time of my mid 30's I was educated up to Masters level, a qualified lecturer in social policy as well as being an ex social worker and in the process of getting married in a Quaker Meeting House. This kick also made me sceptical of anything from drugs to a Christianity and God talk that acted as crutches and a limit on self responsibility.

I got involved with Friends in my confused 20's and was drawn to them because of their democratic and radical roots. I joined and then abandoned my membership yet remained involved with them for the rest of my life in ways perhaps more attached then many regular Friends. Why am I still in the Quaker Community? Part of the reason was that I struggled with the God language, but today this less of a problem for me. I have read more and have faith in my experience so open to affirm and look at what I deny. Part of the reason was that Quakers was the only community that allowed me room to grow.

I also many years ago started to forgive my family understanding that if I remained angry then I was still a victim. But in seeing the food being flung at the effigy I wonder if still have a few more miles on that Journey. It did also make me revisit why I had thrown my membership out. At the time I was finding it difficult to be in Friends, those of my age were from older Quaker families or from public schools. I found it difficult to connect my life with many Friends who were liberal comfortable middle class. It was the ignorance of youth who saw the experience of poverty more important then poverty of experience. I wanted to be held but wasn't. My overseer was caught up in the drama of his wife leaving him for another woman so understandingly now but not then he didn't have the time to pick up my unspoken pleas. I got angry of being abandoned again so rejected them but choose to stay on my terms. Yet I can see I need to move on and reflect on rejoining and face the anger of 30 years as being old history and not the fault of Friends.

When I raised the issues of part 1 in the Meeting this morning, it opened up the floodgates of my involvement with Friends. It prompted a Ministry from the meeting that illustrated the way to look at the issues raised by Marshal Massay and Peter Bishop and the experience behind my Theology and religious practices. This was a reading of what William Penn wrote in 1693.
The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers. This world is a form; our bodies are forms; and no visible acts of devotion can be without forms. But yet the less form in religion the better, since God is a Spirit; for the more mental our worship, the more adequate to the nature of God; the more silent, the more suitable to the language of a Spirit.
So I need to face what I deny and affirm. Or in Biblical language own up to what Matthew says in 7.3 (NRSV).

Why do you look at the speck that is in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?

Expressing our faith: Response to Marshal Massay and Peter Bishop

Its Sundry morning, and last night as my wife and family are away, I could indulge in reading late into the night listening to the rain beating on the window as I was safe under the lamp-light in a world of shadows. In reading the Blogs last week from Britain Yearly Meeting, I was curious about reading Beth Allen's Swarthmore lecture, Ground and Spring: Foundations of Quaker discipleship. Then by chance I was working opposite Friends House in London and so could buy it. It's this that I was reading as I fall asleep last night.

When I wake up, the first thing I do is to check my emails and RSS feeds, in truth to check if I have any books and book-chat(ardent book swapper and reader- see my other blog if curious) but also to see if anything new comes up from the Quaker community. This is what caught my eye. This is a correspondence on different views of what it is to be Quaker. Links to the discussion can be found by clicking on
following-is-reply-by-marshall-massey.html. The core of the debate for me is captured for me in this extract.
Traditional Quakerism takes its practitioners to a specific face of the divine that is (in my personal opinion) either identical or virtually identical to the face that the historic Jesus Christ showed his followers. But (still just speaking personally) I do not believe that the face of the divine experienced by modern Pagans who "draw down the God" is the same face or even anything near the same face. I do not deny that there is something one may validly call "divine" about it, but I do not, personally, believe that what is divine in it is what Christ wanted us to practice and approach.

A community that defines itself by relationship to the divine, without looking carefully at what it means by that word, is, in my personal opinion, a community that is quite capable of going profoundly wrong. I think it was this sort of inattention to changing understandings of the divine that led the humble, meek early Christian religion to evolve over the course of a thousand years into something that hosted the Inquisition and the Crusades.

This spoke directly to the pages I was reading as I fall asleep. Beth Allen on page 61 talks about British Friends that hurt others by their ministries and are then hurt by the responses back. One group is those that have a close and personal relationship with Jesus, God and the Spirit and see the answer as turning to the Christian God for all of us to be flooded with the experience of God's Love. The other group she mentions are those that go beyond all traditional Christian and Theistic God language and want Friends to move away from historical and dated forms, Both remain baffled and even angry when they are eldered that this is not speaking to the condition of all.

Friends practice rests on experience and asking what does it mean to you rather the authority of others. So when faced with these conflicts, one way forward is not to argue with the words but to explore why Friends experiences lead them to express the Divine in the way they do. As at the heart of our lives is often an attempt to answer the Francis of Assisi prayer, God, who are you? God, who am I?

Beth Allen also puts forward a key principle she has discovered over the years based on an approach first put forward by J.S.Mills. This is
People are mostly right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.
By this she means, I like to read contemporary literature so those that read mass paper book romances are wrong. In doing that I am denying the richness of their experiences. So lets ask instead,
What are the people whom we find so difficult denying, what are they affirming-and why? What am I denying and what am I affirming and why?
To end as Beth does, as I have not had a morning cup of tea and I have to leave to attend Meeting in five minutes,

What is forbidden to me? despise another's wisdom, to blaspheme another's God ( Quaker Faith and practice 26.41)

Friday, 11 May 2007

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

Is religious faith a journey of discovery for you rather then a destination? Does your religious experience feel like home rather then a prison so all are welcome? Is the following joke funny or in bad taste?

A man falls over the edge of a cliff. Hurtling down he manages to grasp a tree branch and whilst not religious, he shouts for God to give a helping hand. To his shock a voice from the heavens says ' I shall put out My hand to help thee. I shall hold thee securely. Just let go and trust in me' The man is silent, overwhelmed by the Voice and its message. Looking down, and then up, he whispers, 'Is there anyone else up there?

If your answers are along the lines of ...Satin get behind me... then best not to read either this review or the book. Because you are about to deal with a detailed argument that the New Testament for example is not the inerrant word of God but a human document created by people trying to live and practice conflicting views of what Christianity meant over 350 years. Christianity in becoming the state religion leads to an Orthodoxy in the form of the Nicene creed and the final victory of one of the many Christian sects. The others are suppressed and their books burned, the Pagan temples are destroyed and anti-Semitism becomes part of popular culture. The diversity of the Christian voices lost is explored by Bart D. Ehrman in his book, Lost Christianities. Charles Freeman explores the impact of the Constantine Christian church in The Closing of the Western Mind.

Misquoting Jesus explores a more simple issue of Textual criticism and the attempt to find the original or more realistically the oldest copy. The challenge is that the written document gets changed as it is transmitted over time given changing medium and tools as much as these wider political and theological struggles. Bart D. Ehrman reveals why these issues shaped his personal journey from being a Christian that saw Billy Graham as a dangerous liberal. He was at university struggling to explain why the Mark reference of 1 SAM.21:2-6 was not wrong. Having written a very complex argument to show it was not a mistake, he gave the paper in and it was given back with the comment, 'maybe Mark just made a mistake'. This opened the floodgates for him to look at explaining the other mistakes and so re-framing what the Bible and his faith was.

The book explores the simple oddity that Christianity with the exception of Judaism was the only book based faith of the period yet 97% or more of early Christians were illiterate. Any books and writings were copied from church to church by amateur scribes barely literature themselves. It took most of the 350 years for an agreed cannon to emerge so again hit and miss what versions survived. Virtually most of the complete documents only go back to the 4th century with fragments going back to the 2nd century. These complete older copies themselves did not get rediscovered until 200 odd years after the Bible and the King James version was printed based on incomplete and inaccurate manuscripts.

What got copied over the medieval period was more accurate because of professional scribes but textual critics can trace whole families of texts where the same mistakes are transmitted. Bart D. Ehrman explores the tricks of the trade of how texts get judged as accurate. The primary rule appears to be the harder the reading the more likely to be accurate. By this he means that scribes tended to simplify and harmonise texts that appear to be at odds to "common sense" or with what ever theology was dominate at the time.

The issue of textural accuracy began to become a serious political and theological issue as the Bible was translated into local languages as part of the growth of Protestantism. John Mill in 1707 brought the issue out in to the open by revealing 30, 000 variant readings(to day this is known to be 200,000 mostly spelling mistakes, slip of the pen , missed words etc) Buts its the theological editing and missed/added key sections that Bart D. Ehrman concentrates in in the book. This caused, and in some way still causes, a major problem for Protestants. If your faith is based in the authority of the Bible as the word of God then it not being accurate undermines that authority as the Catholics were eager to point out. They preferred the justification for authority being based on the church and Pope. Protestants reacted by either denying the existence of mistakes or accepted that the Bible was substantially accurate but seeking for originals or older more accurate versions would not do any harm.

Another reaction older then the textual criticism discussed is associated with Christian groups such as Quakers. Here the issue is that the Bible is not a closed revelation but a living and dynamic one based on a personal relationship's with God and that experience leading to convincement and changes in the world. John Wolman for example, guided Quakers to oppose slavery although the Bible accepts slavery as normal, the issue in the Bible being how to treat slaves fairly not abolition.

After discussing the mechanics of how the text get altered Bart D. Ehrman explores the complex theological battles of the early days that affected the text. For example those Christians who saw Jesus as Human only, those that saw him as Human but adopted by God, those that saw him as divine only etc. The other battle was with the role of woman who had a powerful presence in the early church and the texts reflected the battle to suppress them. A third battle was with Pagans and Jews

In these chapters, he also explores the wider issues of who wrote what for what theological purpose. Mark written for the early more Jewish Christians who favoured Jesus as human whist John written with the more sophisticated pagan criticism in mind that Jesus as God would not show human emotions. These ideas and that the New Testament is not a literal history but a series of meditations in line with a liturgical timetable is explored further in Rescuing the bible from Fundamentalism by John Shelby Spong.

As you can see lots of big issues but the book is simple and clear and you can come to it fresh or experienced and still learn. I strongly recommend it. Your faith may be changed or challenged but

recognise and accept that there is another dimension to life than that what is obvious to us. Live with obstacles, doubt and paradox, knowing, that God is always present in the world.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Britain Yearly Meeting Reminisces

I woke up this morning and as usual, first thing I did was to check my emails and feeds. This gives me the buzz that I used to get when waiting for the letter post. Who gets real letters now? The only mail I get are Bank statements and Insurance forms. Neither really get the heart beating except when burgled and then discovering that we have forgot to renew the home insurance cover. It was time for us to remember that ...simplicity is shunning superfluities of...possessions which...obscure us from our vision of reality. Not sure if it has the same ethical and moral kick if the possessions are taken rather then given away.

Anyway, I have been mulling over a couple of blogsphere posts. One was about pluralism and Friends and the other was about are Quakers Christian? I was all fired up to get into an intellectual rant. You name the doctrine and the practice I am the one saying well... To give you a hint, I question most post Nicene Christian doctrines and have a deep fascination with the history and social struggle of the early Church and how its emergence was based on the suppression of a whole host of very different voices. This includes how the Christian canon came into existence. Read Lost Christianities by Bart D. Ehrman or The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman if you want to know where I am coming from.

One reading of George Fox and the early Friends and indeed many of the Radical Christian groups of the day was that they intuitively grasped many of these lost visions and practices hidden away in Biblical descriptions. They moved authority away from the Bible and the Church to the spirit or experiential practice(the source of continual Revelation!) This is why John Wolman could challenge slavery, a practice that very few of early Friends questioned as its in the Bible. They would have, if asked , looked to the treatment of slaves rather then the existence of slavery. See for more background.(Now what has all this to do with Britain Yearly Meeting? Patience Friend I am getting there)

You may be surprised to know that I am not an advocate of the pick and mix from the Supermarket of Religious Traditions. I am rooted in Christianity but as my home not my prison as Lionel Blue (a well known British Rabbi) would say. So I am open to explore and value other faiths. And like any home, its the relatives that you tend to have the most arguments with rather then the neighbours. Read Honest to Jesus by Robert W.Funk to get a feel of the Jesus and Christianity I feel at home with. Or Jesus through the centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan.

As you can imagine, in many Meetings I am not exactly mainstream. Yet in one Meeting a Friend who was well into her 90's and was a very conservative Christian in her theology and language embraced me in the fellowship of Friends. I saw in her the nearest to a "Saint" or someone that burnt with the Light that I have ever seen and experienced. And she saw in me some one that wasn't blowing out the candle but was trying to kindle it brighter. Yet both of us were Friends that you the reader may want to exclude from the Society of Friends.

The BYM blog reminded me of when I went to Yearly meeting(yes got there at last) . I sat in the Gallery of the main hall at the back for one session. The Meeting of several hundred people waiting in silence was one of the most profound I sat in.The minute records what the experience was

Minute 13: A prayerful life: experiencing the inward teacher

‘You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of light and hast walked in the light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’

Within the gathered stillness of an extended period of worship we have shared our experience of living, or trying to live, a prayerful life, a life in which we collaborate with God’s love and can experience the presence of God at any time and place. Prayer is the way we face the world. Prayer is how we are with other human beings, an act of love which can turn the world upside down.
My experience of this was several speakers that gave polished intellectual ministry but which washed over me or to be frank felt smug. Then a old man with painful effort got to his feet, and dragged words out of himself to ask those who were struggling with feeling God's love not to be downcast. He spoke of his own struggles from the heart and not from the head, and it was clearly painful. I burst into tears, and as I type this tears drip down my face. He is the reason that I know Friends are my home. John Punshon who I met at Woodbrooke in the 1970s makes my point for me.

Getting on with those I love is often a business demanding patience, discretion, tact and understanding. It gets complicated sometimes. It also gets strained, occasionally to the breaking point. But without expression it is barren. I show my love in the things I do...
In Britain Yearly meeting today what will make you know that you are at home and enjoying the company of neighbours and relatives?

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Took the first step...

Well did it. I attended my local meeting(picture on left) for the first time in 2 years, which sounds like I have been moonlighting somewhere else. The truth is that this is the first time I have attended anywhere for 2 years. I was impressed by the warmth of the hospitality of a small meeting of some 10-12 people, many of whom clearly had the independence of mind and spirit that I love about Quakers. The odd little peculiarities of Friends, the door greeter, the flowers on the table picked fresh from the garden, Bible and other faith material on the table near the centre, the handshake, afterthoughts circle, notices felt as comfortable as an old pair of shoes.

The ministry mainly focused on Peace. It here that mixed feelings arose. The first person’s ministry was clearly a heart felt poem, which washed over me but may well have spoken to another’s condition. The second gave me a key into the condition of the speaker as he admitted not knowing what prayer was or who to pray to but did see that attending peace demonstrations was a prayer-in action. It was the third Ministry that got me. She made the point that aggression and war arose out of fear and animal instinct. Well, deep breath... for me a fundamental cause of aggression is the lack of social justice which is a social and political rather then psychological struggle.

But I am a Friend of long standing enough to know that when Ministry engages you like this, then this is the worse time to Minister( Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit). You need to get below the surface and try and see beyond the words. A sharp tap to the ego raises the point that I may have a range of counterarguments but which of the two of us does more for Peace? So tongue bitten, legs firmly crossed I let it wash over and through me.

In the afterthoughts circle (once meeting is over, people are asked if they have any thoughts to share about that day’s Ministry). Again I rejected the urge to start a debate. But then…but then…A current court case in England is two mothers that filmed their toddlers being made to fight in order to toughen them up. The parents are being prosecuted for child cruelty. Many in the Meeting tutted over the behaviour of the women, which does need challenging but I come from the type of estates these women live in. My own sister treated her son 20 years ago in a similar way. I know that these parents are making realistic assessments of what their children will experience.

One of the other roots of aggression for me is when certainty of knowledge and righteous authority leads to seeing the other person as less then human. For me, to condemn these parents is start down this route. Just to be clear, I condemn the sin but not the sinner. In the day job I advise on the setting up of programmes to work in poor and abandoned communities so that parents can see and learn alternatives to these bleak and negative child-rearing practices. Again, I resisted the urge to get into a debate. Was this me crossing the road as the refusenik Samaritan? Or was I being polite and waiting for a more appropriate time rise the issues?

Pondering what to do, I was greeted by the Clerk, who rushed me off for a tour of the nature reserve that he was building in the waste ground at the back of the Meeting House. Suddenly I was seeing dark woods, a wild meadow, bridges, a natural spring and pools all created and shaped out of a waste acre of land. Truly, a fantastic peaceful natural landscape in a large troubled public housing estate: a real metaphor for what Friends at their best represent for the world. I left walking cheerfully over the world answering that of God in every one...